Friday, December 19, 2008

Devastation For Ole Miss; Massive Sun Belt Battle

#9 Louisville 77, Mississippi 68
For Ole Miss, this was a devastating loss for more than one reason. The loss itself was a big missed opportunity, as this game was tight the entire way. The Rebels actually tied up the game with about five minutes to go. They had come into this game with a 7-3 record and without any bad losses, but without any good wins either. A win here would have thrust them right onto the fat part of the bubble. Instead they're 7-4 and in need of a minimum of a 10-6 SEC record to be a serious at-large contender. But this game was a devastating loss for another reason: star point-guard Chris Warren tore his ACL and will be out for the season. Not only do they lose his 20 points per game, but his ability to create with the ball drove Mississippi's offense. The fact that they were already a long shot to make the Tournament even with Warren makes it really hard to see Mississippi making the Tournament this year without him. For Louisville, this is actually the best team they've beaten all year. By far. Their schedule up to this point has been embarrassing, but it picks up very quickly. After this game they get Minnesota, followed by UAB, UNLV and Kentucky. And right after Kentucky comes the Big East schedule. In other words, Louisville is jumping into the deep end right now, and we'll find out very soon whether they can be a serious Big East contender. And after the Minnesota game, Louisville's next seven games are scheduled for ESPN, ESPN2 or CBS. So we'll all get plenty of opportunities to watch them play.

Western Kentucky 69, South Alabama 66

A big difference between this blog and ESPN is that this blog is going to analyze games like this, while ESPN wants to devote hours to analyzing Tyler Hansbrough's performance in a meaningless game against Evansville. And a big difference between this blog and most other bracketology sites is that I'm not going to reflexively make Western Kentucky the favorite in this conference just because they won this game. I didn't actually have this game on television in my area, but we can learn a lot from the box score. The first thing somebody might notice is that the box score seems backwards. As these two teams have dueled for the Sun Belt crown over the past few years, it has always been Western Kentucky that dominated on the inside, while South Alabama had the advantage in guard play. Yet here you had South Alabama dominating inside, yet faltering on the outside. South Alabama won on both the offensive and defensive boards while Western Ketucky won the turnovers, steals and three-point shooting categories. But to me, the difference in this game was experience and confidence. Western Kentucky came in as the big bad Sweet Sixteen team, and they clearly expected to win. South Alabama must have been nervous and lacking confidence, because their complementary players all took a backseat and let their senior leading scorer Domonic Tilford do everything. Tilford scored 30 points, but also had six turnovers. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky was much more balanced, finding double-digits from four different players. I think South Alabama will learn a lot from this experience, and they'll play better next time. As time goes on, Western Kentucky's 2008 Tournament performance will fade further into the rearview mirror, and South Alabama's players will feel more comfortable playing their game. Because when South Alabama plays within themselves, they're the best team in the Sun Belt this season.

Cincinnati 75, Mississippi State 63
Cincinnati went on a remarkable 20-2 run to close the first half, and Mississippi State was never able to claw all the way back into the game. For Mississippi State, their resume now nearly exactly mirrors their friends from Oxford. Both teams are 7-4, both lack any really bad losses, but neither have any good wins. One thing Mississippi State has going for them is that their best player didn't just tear his ACL, but that's about the only good news. A win over Cincinnati wouldn't have shocked the basketball world, but it would have gone a long way towards legitimizing Mississippi State's team. The SEC West is still wide open, and it's very weak, which means that there will be plenty of potential wins. Not to mention that the way the SEC tournament is seeded means that the SEC West winner gets a pretty favorable draw. But I haven't seen anything out of the Bulldogs that convinces me that they're the best team in the SEC West right now. LSU looks better, for one. For Cincinnati, this marks their best win of the season as they move to 8-2. The best way to describe them is solid: they beat the teams they're supposed to beat, but they haven't pulled any upsets. It's enough to put them on the bubble (their ranking is in the 40s in the RPI, Sagarin and Pomeroy), but it's not going to be enough to earn an at-large bid out of the Big East. If we consider Pitt, UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville, Georgetown and Marquette as Tournament teams (hard to see any of those teams missing out) then that means that the Big East only has two other Tournament bids that are likely. The Selection Committee is not going to take the unprecedented ninth team unless they really have to. And that means that Cincy will be fighting with Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia (and possibly even Seton Hall) for two, maybe three Tournament positions. That's some really stiff competition. I'm not saying that Cincinnati can't do it, but it's going to be very tough.

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